A judge has blocked protesters from gathering outside a federal courthouse as part of a nationwide demonstration scheduled for Friday, saying the space isn't a public forum and there are security concerns even beyond worries about its potential as a terrorism target.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan on Thursday rejected a lawsuit by Occupy the Courts that sought to force the government to issue a permit to let about 200 people demonstrate in front of a lower Manhattan courthouse that has hosted several major terrorism trials and the sentencing of Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff.
The ruling was not expected to deter demonstrators, who were prepared to gather several hundred feet away in a park located among courthouses and federal buildings. Lawyers for the protesters said they had not decided whether to appeal.
The judge said the request for a demonstration from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. had particularly poor timing, given that several hundred people would already clog the entrances of the courthouse as they arrive to attend naturalization ceremonies and because a swearing-in ceremony for a new judge had long been scheduled for the same time period.
The judge said he did not mean his ruling to exclude the possibility that a permit could be ordered for a different time and day. He said the concerns raised by the government were reasonable and it seemed that the ban on demonstrations directly in front of the courthouse was not related to the content of anyone's message.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Natalie Kuehler noted in her arguments that the protesters wanted to gather in an area alongside a street that is closed to traffic with guards and barriers at either end.
"It's known that this courthouse is on the terrorist target list," she said.
Kuehler also cited a case in which another federal judge in Manhattan had ruled that the area in front of the courthouse was not a public forum.
Kaplan said there were considerations regarding "safety apart from terrorism and criminal behavior concerns."
In their lawsuit, protest organizers asked the judge to overturn the General Services Administration's rejection of their permit application. The lawsuit said the group's First Amendment rights were violated.
A lawyer for the group, Mark Taylor, said he believed the space in front of the courthouse met the criteria for a public forum just as spaces around courthouses historically have been gathering places for the public.
The protest marks the second anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against limits on spending by independent organizations.